The Bejeezus Out of Me

Startling behavioral science.

Bad News, Bearishly Delivered

The financial costs of too little compassion, and the reasons behind it.

OOPS! YOU LOSE!
Bad things happen, and not just to good people. Which means that, in no small measure, hospitals, law enforcement agencies, downsizing corporations, and many other organizations are in the bad news business. Knowing this, many train employees in interpersonal sensitivity and compassion—and they don't just do it because they value kindness and consideration. There’s a huge financial cost to heartlessness. Morale plummets throughout a company, and absenteeism and employee thievery rise, as do lawsuits.

What is behind the chronic compassion deficits of some doctors, managers, police officers, school counselors, and other "bad news bears?" Why do they express so little appropriate emotion and invoke such costly wrath? Andrew Molinsky, a professor of organizational behavior at Brandeis University, set out with researchers at Wharton and Harvard business schools to answer such questions. They found a wealth of scholarly research indicating that, in general, people feel and behave less generously when reminded of the pressures of the business world.

For example, in one early experiment conducted in Israel, merely calling a particular game the “Wall Street Game” as opposed to the “Community Game” made players behave more greedily during the game. In a host of social dilemma experiments at various institutions, people who had to make economic decisions have behaved more competitively than people whose decisions did not potentially involve profit and loss. With this sort of research in mind, Molinksy’s team tested whether business world patterns of thinking get indirectly activated in advance of what are supposed to be compassionate “I’m sorry to have do tell you this” conversations, with the result being that the messenger seems somehow culpable and therefore gets “shot” (or sued).

Molinsky’s team conducted three separate lab experiments. All relied on simple games and self-reported emotional states. In all three experiments, the researchers unobtrusively primed some subjects with business-world terminology or tasks. They found that, consistently, the primed subjects had dampened empathy and less compassionate interactions than did control group subjects. 

Net net? In "The Bedside Manner of Homo Economicus," the researchers suggest that exposure to business world terms activates a profit-and-loss morality that unconsciously deadens a person’s emotional responsiveness and diminishes that person’s ability to conduct sensitive conversations. This has implications for employee training at hospitals, HR departments, law enforcement agencies, and anyone in the bad news biz. Training employees about the importance of sensitivity is not enough. Neither is practice, practice, practice. It seems that attention should also be paid to activities any "bad news bear" was involved in immediately before difficult conversations. Subtle changes in thinking and emotional availability may be wrought by the ordinary business-like and decidedly non-empathetic tasks and conversations of daily lifle.

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Rebecca Coffey's eBook MURDERS MOST FOUL: And the School Shooters in Our Midst is available on Amazon.com,BarnesAndNoble.com, and in the iBook store.

Rebecca Coffey is a science journalist and broadcast commentator with Vermont Public Radio. 

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